How can we hold the love of God, and, the suffering, conflict and pain of the world together? How can we sit and read today’s Gospel passage, Matthew 10:24-39, that speaks both of God’s noticing of the death of a sparrow, but also of violence and family arguments that have arisen out of the Christian faith?
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father.
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
Sometimes, and especially so during this time of Coronavirus, I think we are so used to hearing about the terrible pain and suffering in the world that we can become hardened to it. Very often it is not until suffering affects us personally or someone very close to us that we awaken to that big question ‘Why’?
There are, however, some who are very sensitive to the world’s pain and suffering. I think of two people in particular: The first was a lady who attended a church I once ministered in. She used to have massive ‘sulks’, for want of a better word, with God every time something terrible came to her attention – the murder of a child or a natural disaster would send into a ‘God sulk’ for weeks on end. She would refuse to say her prayers as an act of protest. It was usually seeing something miraculously good that got her praying again. This was a rather eccentric approach to faith, but nevertheless a passionate and honest one.
The second person who comes to mind was someone called Simone Weil. She was born in France in 1909 into a wealthy Jewish family. All her life she was an activist on behalf of the downtrodden and outcast. In 1937 Simone had a religious experience when praying in St. Francis’s Church in Assisi, but although she embraced Christianity she refused to be baptised because she felt she was called to be an outsider, just as Jesus himself had been. She died in 1943 from complications arising from starvation – although she was in England at the time, she refused to eat any more than her French brothers and sisters living under Nazi occupied France – this was her way of standing with those who suffered. In the end, it cost her her life.
These two people then, one relatively unknown and the other relatively famous, are among many throughout history who have stood in dark places with their eyes open to the terrible suffering of the world. I think that maybe we are not all called to stand in that place, but we should, at least, sometimes reflect on the pain and suffering of the world and to try to hold this alongside our faith in a loving and compassionate God and to experience the discomfort that this causes.
Even those who face the world’s darkness each day have to try to remember also God’s love. Many feel and know this love very keenly – it is at the heart of our Christian faith. Others rarely experience any sensation of this divine love and know it only by faith. Whichever of these sorts of people we are, we all have to remind ourselves sometimes of the miracle of life – to look at a grain of sand as William Blake did and see the whole universe reflected in it. To look at a sleeping child and ponder the miracle of each delicate breath. To examine the fragility of a leaf or flower and ponder the imagination and genius that lead to its existence. Again, all of us need to discipline ourselves in the perception of wonder and mystery. Sometimes – we can become as immune to it as we can to suffering.
To hold together the love of God and the pain of the world is a very difficult thing to do. It is a problem which scholars have debated down the ages without coming to a satisfactory conclusion. They have spoken of the impassibility of God, (his beyondness and immovability) and of the reign of sin in the world. But at the end of the day these are words and phrases. And who am I to add to them?
I want to leave you with an image. Take yourself back in time nearly two millenia and across the globe to a city on a hill in the east of the Roman Empire. There, just outside a city a man died on a cross in terrible pain and godforsakenness. His name was Jesus – Jesus of Nazareth. For us, who follow in his way, the cross was the place and the time when these two utterly unalike things – the love of God and the pain of the world – came together in one place. This was the place where God experienced the hugeness of the world’s pain and where the world experienced the hugeness of God’s love. This is the place in which all of us Christians are expected to stand – maybe not all the time, but certainly some of the time – to try and come to terms with this mysterious thing – a place where the love of God and the world’s pain meet each other – a holy place.
Rev’d Dr. Anne Morris
Vicar St. Oswald’s, Knuzden